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Frustration, Infighting and Fired: What Happened During Pāhoa High’s ‘Stressful’ Track Season?

By Tom Hasslinger
July 3, 2022, 6:30 AM HST
* Updated July 2, 3:19 PM
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For several years, Pāhoa High and Intermediate School’s Track and Field team was essentially out of commission.

Due to a lack of participation, the school didn’t field a team to compete in Big Island Interscholastic Federation, BIIF, events like the other popular sports such as football and volleyball, participating rather at the much more informal club level.

This past season, Pāhoa broke the recent trend and fielded a proper BIIF team, the first time in roughly a decade.

And the first season back was a rough one, according to its coaches and some parents. Not because the kids didn’t compete well – far from it. Athletes strove and improved over the course of the three-month season. The team was just marred in turmoil with its own athletic department all season, according to the team’s two coaches, one of whom was fired at season’s end.

The coaches described the season as one with such little administrative support, it bordered on “hostile” behavior. The season ended with a state-qualifying alternate 4×100 men’s relay team being removed from consideration for competing in the May championship event due to a clerical error that was under administration’s purview.

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“It was such a battle, it was so stressful,” head coach Ashley Quinn said. “It was not ever comfortable.”

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Big Island Now spoke to both track coaches, some parents, the school principal and reviewed emails between the track coaches and the school’s athletic director, Hoku Haliniak, that were written during the season. Big Island Now also read letters written by parents of track athletes to school administration that praised the coaches’ dedication to the team despite what seemed to the parents to be a lack of support from administration.

The coaches spoke to Big Island Now in hopes that shedding light on the issues will be an impetus for change. If track is going to survive at Pāhoa, it needs to be treated like the other sports, and not picked on.

“It was a constant fight,” Quinn said.

Parents Raise Concerns Over What They Saw During The Season

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In a letter to Pāhoa High and Intermediate School Principal Kim Williamson, parent Destinee Keawemauhili expressed her frustration over the relay team’s last-minute disqualification and her overall “disappointment in the lack of support from the athletic department.”

“The lack of communication and support throughout the season wasn’t only noticed, but felt,” she wrote.

When Keawemauhili spoke to Big Island Now at the end of May she said she still waiting for a reply from the principal or anyone in administration on her questions. She also left phone messages, she said.

“It was like we were in the way,” she said of how the track athletes were treated during the season, which included cobbled together uniforms, no money from the athletic department supplies budget, run down practice facilities, and cellphone pictures of individual pieces of trash on the sports field sent to the team’s coaches blaming the track athletes for leaving it.

“It was kind of like the boys were forgotten,” Keawemauhili said.

Quinn agreed with the parent’s assessment, saying the kids were treated as though they were in the way instead of part of the sporting family. One cellphone picture Quinn said she received from Haliniak was of an individual Gatorade bottle, blaming the team for leaving it behind. She said her athletes picked up on the hostility, and eventually stopped wanting to be around the athletic department facilities.

“They didn’t even want to use the bathrooms,” Quinn said.

Keawemauhili said she saw the dispirited toll those micro-aggressions took on the student-athletes.

“There was no motivation for them to be a part of the team,” she said, a far cry from the programs she and her family had seen having lived on O‘ahu prior to moving to the Big Island.

The final blow in a frustrating season came when the 4×100 men’s relay team was pulled from states because of an admin error. PC: Runnerspace.com

State Team Qualified, But Paperwork Error Then Disqualifies Them

Quinn described the season as one with “severe workplace hostility.”

But the chief blow, some parents and both coaches said, came at the end of the season when the 4×100 men’s relay team that had qualified as an alternate team to compete in the state championship on O‘ahu, was notified around the same time that it was, in fact, disqualified for consideration because a registration error for two of the runners deemed the team ineligible from competing.

In this case, a pair of the runners who attended charter schools in the area, The Hawai‘i Academy of Arts and Science charter, but competed at Pāhoa when it came to sports, were inadvertently registered for the wrong team.

According to the students’ home addresses, they should have been registered to compete for nearby Kea‘au High School, not Pāhoa, a registration error under the purview of administration that wasn’t caught until the very end of the season.

“They were crushed,” Quinn said of the athletes when they were told they were removed  from consideration for attending states on O‘ahu.

As were the parents of the athletes.

In a letter to coach Quinn, a parent of one of the disqualified runners wrote to Quinn to congratulate her on a successful season, but iterate his dissatisfaction with the ending.

“I must say that we were sad to hear that although our kids were presented the opportunity to experience competing at a state level, they were not even given the choice to do so,” wrote Chaslen Hualani Ganir. “It’s difficult to comprehend the validity of this decision. Isnʻt our most precious kuleana, as a school and a community, to mālama our keiki?

“As a parent, and fellow educator, I would like to see a change in the way decisions are made concerning our keiki,” Ganir, who didn’t return messages from Big Island Now, added in the letter. “They should not miss out on opportunities they earned due to the overlooked actions or insensitive decisions of another.”

It is the athletic department’s responsibility to ensure student-athletes from charter schools are registered properly, according to the Hawai‘i Department of Education.

“The athletic directors of the charter school and HIDOE school work together to register student-athletes,” Krislyn Yano, spokeswoman for HIDOE, said.

How common a mistake such registration errors each year wasn’t clear. BIIF doesn’t track those numbers.

But BIFF President Dean Cevallos, who called the oversight unfortunate, said that he hadn’t seen that type of error in his four years as president where the mistake was caught so late in the season.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Cevallos said. “The ADs should have known better.”

“We depend on the ADs to do their jobs,” he added.

Missed States Only Fraction of Season’s Problems

Cornelia Hokulani Haliniak. PC: Marquis Who’s Who

For Quinn, the last-minute notification from administration of the oversight which robbed the team of accomplishment and replaced it with frustration was a microcosm of how the team was treated all season long.

Quinn and her former assistant coach, Emily Macri, who was fired, spoke to Big Island Now in hopes that sharing their experiences will change the culture in the department. Quinn said she doesn’t know how she, or anyone, would be willing to continue coaching if things didn’t improve.

Ashley Quinn

“We had to beg, borrow and steal to get transportation (to out of town meets), we paid out of pocket, we paid for our own food,” Quinn said.

When reached by phone in May to schedule a time to discuss alleged issues around the track team this season – specifically the team’s disqualification from state consideration and whether an assistant coach was fired at the season’s end, Haliniak said she would check with her administration superiors before she could agree to speak. She called the reporter back and referred all questions to Williamson.

“I don’t appreciate my coaches going behind my back,” she told the reporter. “You’ve been lied to.”

When the reporter asked if “being lied to” meant the team wasn’t disqualified due to the registration mishap or the assistant coach didn’t get fired, Haliniak didn’t answer. She again referred all questions to Williamson.

Williamson agreed to an email interview but said in the email that the school could not “provide specific details about personnel actions to preserve employee privacy” in relation to questions about Macri’s termination. Nor could he discuss specifics about the nature of the relationship between the track coaches and the athletic director this year.

Williamson did provide answers to the questions he was permitted to answer.

Big Island Now emailed Williamson 15 questions during the course of reporting this story. Williamson provided responses to seven of them.

Williamson confirmed that it was the responsibility of the athletic directors of both Pāhoa and the charter schools to make sure the students were registered for the proper school when it came to participating in sports.

He didn’t specify, when asked, why the error that disqualified the team was caught so late in the season, but did say that their school was “made aware prior to the state qualifications.”

“Both athletic directors of the students’ charter school and our school work together on registering student-athletes,” Williamson said. “When they were made aware of the situation, they did the right thing and immediately notified the BIIF Track Chairperson.”

Track Allocated No Money From Supply Budget

The track and field team received no money from the athletic department’s $17,000 budget for supplies this year.

Williamson explained that was because every year, coaches are asked to submit requests for equipment needs in September so that all the needs of the different sports can be weighed and determined when allocating the money.

The track team simply missed that deadline, the principal pointed out.

“We received the track team’s request in the spring,” Williamson said. “By that time, due to the availability of items and shipping times, the requests would not have been able to be filled in time for the current season.”

Quinn said she wasn’t aware there were deadlines, and that she was told budgets were allocated on a “needs-basis.”

That assumption seems to be supported by one email between Haliniak and Macri during the season when discussing money for supplies.

“No program has funding,” Haliniak wrote. “It is based on need – track did not meet with me before the season started – please do not say there was no monies for track.”

Williamson didn’t specify when asked which other sports, if any, didn’t receive money this season because they had missed the deadline to submit requests, as track had done.

“Teams that submitted their requests in a timely manner were able to have some, if not all of their requests filled,” Williamson said.

At the end of the season, after the disappointment of the state snafu, Quinn had her end-of-the-season meeting with Williamson and Haliniak.

It was in that meeting that Quinn was notified Marci, the volunteer assistant coach, was being fired. Marci was not at the meeting, which was reserved for only head coaches and administration. Quinn said the reasons her superiors gave her as the reasons for the assistant’s dismissal was because Macri was “negative,” “started rumors,” and was the source of “parental complaints.”

It was a shocking bit of news, Quinn said. She had noticed nothing of the sort all season long. She’d never heard about any complaints regarding her assistant and couldn’t fathom what rumors she was accused of starting.

Keawemauhili, the mother of an athlete, said she was “shocked” when Big Island Now notified her of the firing during the course of the interview.

“I can’t believe it,” she said.

Quinn informed Macri of the news of her firing.

“It was a complete blindside,” Macri, a first-year seventh- and eight-grade teacher at the school, said.

Macri also learned that she’d been removed from her summer teaching position, days before the summer session was to begin, a job on whose income she was relying. Nor would Macri be allowed to volunteer coach for any position in the athletic department, not just track, she was informed.

Williamson declined to answer questions regarding Macri’s firing from either position, but did say that volunteer coaches are addressed as the need arises.

“It’s very questionable,” Macri said. “In my opinion, this feels like a full-on retaliation … because  our questions weren’t being answered throughout the season.”

Emails Show Breakdown in Communication

Those questions during the season between the athletic department and the coaches centered primarily on how to raise money for supplies and equipment since the sport wasn’t allocated money, and how to secure transportation to out-of-town events, among other logistics.

Big Island Now reviewed a few lengthy sets of email correspondences between the coaches and the athletic director containing a couple dozen question-and-answer exchanges on their Department of Education work email addresses.

The need for money and supplies was dire, according to both coaches, hence the ample written correspondence with the AD on how to procure it for supplies.

The coaches estimated they spent around $1,000 of their own money on supplies because of their zero dollar allotment from the budget. They began the season with hardly any supplies – two broken down shotputs that “were so old, we could barely use them,” Quinn described, and a track they could barely use.

To compensate, the coaches scheduled as many practices as they could at nearby Kea‘au High School, whose facilities are state-of-the-art by comparison.

The email exchanges show the coaches asking the athletic director on how to fundraise for the program in a way that wouldn’t violate any of the rules around the process. It also shows, in parts, a gap, if not a breakdown, in communication between the director and coaches.

‘Hit Up … Your Ex-Boyfriend, That NFL Player’

At one point in the thread, Haliniak suggests Quinn ask for money from Quinn’s ex-boyfriend, a professional football player.

Wrote Quinn to Haliniak: “When I referenced fundraising for States, you mentioned a process and paperwork that needs to be completed and authorized by you to begin fundraising. I will need clarification on that process.”

Responded Haliniak: “I am not an expert at fundraising – you need to find a parent to help you.”  She then suggested a pledge run as an idea. “Maybe hit Chad Owens or your ex-boyfriend, that NFL player.”

According to Quinn, Haliniak suggested again during their end-of-the-season meeting that Quinn should have solicited money from her ex. Both times, Quinn said, the comment made her feel “like crap.”

Williamson declined to discuss Haliniak’s comment, as it was one of the eight questions he didn’t answer, citing personnel matters.

There are several exchanges in the email threads that are normal questions and answers. At points, Haliniak thanks the coaches for their hard work. But there are other times in the back-and-forth where it is obvious the two sides aren’t seeing eye to eye.

Quinn asked for fundraising guidance in another instance, referring to an approved boys volleyball fundraiser that transpired earlier as something the track team could do as well, and asked if Haliniak would help.

“Are you implying I am unfair with the teams fundraising?” Haliniak wrote, according to the email transcript.

“I am not even sure what this means??” Quinn responded. “I am not familiar with the process of fundraising, especially the paperwork aspect.”

“Like I said,” Haliniak countered. “The parents did everything.”

In the end, it was a season of little fundraising and spotty supplies. The team never procured sweatshirts or coats and some kids stayed cold during events on colder days. Some athletes even borrowed each others’ running spikes, as they didn’t have their own.

At one point, the coaches went directly to the principal to see about ordering shoes, a move Haliniak referenced in the email chain by writing, according to the transcript, “I do not like being blindsided … By you going behind my back to ask administration before coming to me makes this a challenge …”

Lack of supplies was referenced in Keawemauhili’s letter to the principal as well.

“Essential supplies for the entire team were either borrowed or paid for with the coaches’ own personal money,” the mother wrote. “The team could have greatly benefited from having gear to keep them warm and dry during the meets as well, but what saddened me the most was the fact that some of the boys had to share track shoes in order to participate.”

Keawemauhili recounted one doomed fundraising suggestion by the athletic director for the track team that consisted of buying a tote bag with a Pāhoa T-shirt, water bottle, and little else for $50 with the caveat that the fundraiser would only be allowed if each member of the team agreed to purchase one.

According to its coaches, the track and field team at felt isolated inside the school’s athletic department. PC: Runnerspace.com

Both coaches confirmed that ill-fated idea.

Principal: AD is ‘Passionate’ And Expects Discipline

Haliniak was inducted into “Marquis Who’s Who” at the beginning of 2022.

According to a press release from the organization on the induction, individuals profiled are selected on the basis of current reference value. Factors such as position, noteworthy accomplishments, visibility, and prominence in a field are all taken into account, it said.

“Ms. Haliniak has excelled as the athletic director at Pāhoa High School in Hawai‘i since 2015,” the induction reads. “Overseeing every aspect of the athletic program, she is largely responsible for the overall guidance and direction of the various sports programs offered by the aforementioned school. Working closely with coaches and student athletes, she also handles facility maintenance and compliance at all times. A very rewarding and motivational career, Ms. Haliniak especially enjoys interacting with students and making a difference in their lives as well as mentoring and guiding coaches.”

Haliniak’s bio in the inauguration announcement states that she held athletic director appointments at Molokai High School, University Laboratory School and Laupahoehoe Charter High School. She was the director of information for the Hawai‘i High School Athletic Association and the assistant sports information director and intramural coordinator for the University of Hawai‘i-Hilo.

Haliniak is no longer with Pāhoa, having accepted a position at another school, Quinn said. Williamson declined to comment on Haliniak’s employment status, leaving that as one of the unanswered questions sent by Big Island Now.

He did speak to her work ethic and leadership as an athletic director.

“AD Haliniak is passionate about sports and students being given the opportunity to compete,” Williamson said. “She demands that coaches be organized and disciplined in how they run their individual sports and expects fair play and responsibility from students and staff alike.”

He also said the track team at Pāhoa had a good first year back, a season which showed growth and improvement.

“The track team showed promise and growth over the school year,” Williamson said. “My hope is that this growth will continue for the future.”

Quinn said she hopes the track team is shown more support in the future, so it can thrive as one one of the school’s staple programs.

“I want to be there for the kids, they need it and deserve it,” Quinn said on her future as track coach. “I don’t know if I can do that.”

Quinn added that after Haliniak was contacted by Big Island Now, Haliniak texted Quinn on her personal cellphone.

“Kind of upsetting these things are being done behind my back,” the text read.

Quinn said she did not respond to her former superior.

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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